The high-fashion machine has brought Yoon Ahn’s experimental Japanese streetwear label into the limelight. But what happens now?
By Shane Mitchell
Portrait by Dan Bailey
September 19, 2017
A few years ago, Tokyo-based designer Yoon Ahn made a confession. Sitting in her Shibuya design studio wearing a pendant cross from her 2014 Nu Order collection, the 40-year-old admitted that she and her husband, rap producer Young-Kee Yu, also known by his stage name, Verbal, collected vintage kaiju atomic monster toys. The pair directed me to check out Nakano Broadway, a shopping mall that specializes in geeky cosplay costumes, manga, and creepy ephemera situated in an uncool neighborhood far from their more fashion-conscious headquarters. While this fascination may appear childish, they were actually clued into one of the microtrends Japan makes world-famous: in this instance, artist Takashi Murakami’s celebration of otaku (obsessive fandom) culture. Their continued appreciation for darkly quirky and fringe symbolism—whether from bōsōzoku biker gangs or faintly menacing religious cults—informed early collections of Ambush, the couple’s street-wear label launched in 2008.
Born in Seattle, Yoon worked as a graphic designer after relocating to Japan in 2003, but when her partner’s music career gained momentum, she took charge of his wardrobe. “Verbal hired the top stylists in Japan for the shows,” Yoon says. “They would present what they thought the stereotypical rapper is supposed to wear—huge chains and rings—and we found that kind of ridiculous, so we just started making smaller pieces for fun.”
It’s essential to note both Yoon and Verbal are outsiders living in a country that often marginalizes individuals who don’t easily fit restrictive Japanese norms. She’s Korean-American, he’s Japanese of Korean descent. Not quite gaijin, but not fully accepted, either. “Japan is a collective society, so conformity is encouraged,” she says. “They like to box you in. From the beginning, I knew Ambush didn’t belong in any of the boxes that existed, so we made our own category.” In fact, the Ambush spring/summer 2018 collection, titled “Hues,” is an acknowledgment of rebellious youth and matters of belonging, as inspired by filmmaker John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club. Remixing notions of femininity is also a personal priority. Yoon chopped off her long straight hair and dyed it platinum blonde, favors a punk Ambush padlock choker and mannish trench coat, and embellishes her look with geisha-red lipstick from the makeup capsule collection she created for Shu Uemura. Even her deep tan is a flip-off to classic Asian perceptions of beauty.
Given the voracious appropriation of street cultures by high fashion houses, including Gucci’s recent homage to Dapper Dan, Louis Vuitton’s alliance with skate brand Supreme, and the breakout success of aggressively subversive brands like Hood by Air, it was only a matter of time before her jewelry led to collaborations with Nigo of A Bathing Ape, Jun Takahashi of Undercover, and Chitose Abe of Sacai—fashion contemporaries born of similar boundary-pushing Harajuku style tribes. Then, the hip-hop world came knocking, and Pharrell and Kanye became regular clients. Yoon’s sense of style evolved beyond these like-minded communities when her brand caught the eye of fashion’s cognoscenti: Colette Roussaux added Ambush jewelry designs to her eponymous Paris boutique in 2014. A year later, Yoon decided she wanted a matching canvas for her accessories, so she started designing unisex apparel—belted kilts, boxer shorts, T-shirts with “Make Art Not Friends” emblazoned in gothic lettering.
After only two collections, the line landed her on the short list for the LVMH Young Fashion Designer Prize earlier this year. “It was definitely a stamp of approval that listening to our own voice was good,” she says of the honor. “My biggest highlight was Karl Lagerfeld complimenting my work. You know you did all right when that happens.” Recognition is now leading to projects on a global scale. MoMA senior curator Paola Antonelli has commissioned Yoon to contribute to the upcoming exhibit “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” She also has a few high-profile collaborations in the wings, including designing special pieces for a farewell Collette x Sacai pop-up during Paris Fashion Week in September. The mainstream attention, however, does come with risks.
“If you’re lucky, you get noticed. But like anything, people get quickly bored and move on to the next new one. This is where the test lies for a brand,” she says. “When the ethos is driven by clear vision and message, it will withstand the test of time. Because only you can do what you do.”
On display in the new Ambush “Workshop” retail gallery in Shibuya, her most recent accessories remain idiosyncratic, albeit more understated than the bling she designed for Verbal’s earlier stage performances. With a metallic security tag pin, a cigarette holder shaped like a cassette player, a Walkman headphone choker, and a blank-name badge pin, she continues to hone her edge on experimental microtrends.